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The fire still burns for Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden

Steve Gunther/CalArts

Jazz great Charlie Haden led an ensemble of CalArts students in a concert at Disney Hall's Redcat theater.

Charlie Haden

Steve Gunther

The 15-member ensemble of CalArts jazz students performed a program of music from Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra.

Charlie Haden

Steve Gunther

Charlie Haden concluded the emotional evening by telling his students: "See you at class on Tuesday."


Here's a list of some things Charlie Haden can no longer do:

  • He can't walk very quickly.
  • He can't speak very loudly.
  • He can't eat solid food. 

But he can still conduct an orchestra, as he did Tuesday night when he led a concert by a talented ensemble of students from CalArts, where Haden launched the jazz program in 1982.

Haden had polio as a child. In recent years, the esteemed and prolific bass player, now 76, has been suffering from post-polio syndrome. He's lost considerable weight and walks slowly, with a cane.

The concert at Disney Hall's Redcat theater was not billed as a farewell, but it had that air as Haden delicately made his way onstage before a packed house that included family and friends. Despite his thin, halting voice, Haden made clear that his spirit is still intact as he announced a new opening to the program: "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" — the anthem of the African National Congress during the apartheid era. 

Haden's political bent was reflected throughout the program, which featured music from his four decades-plus work with the Liberation Music Orchestra. It included his "Not in Our Name," written when the George W. Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The program also included "This is Not America," by Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie, and "Sandino," Haden's salute to the early 20th-Century Nicaraguan revolutionary.

But it wasn't all musical polemics. The centerpiece of the evening was a medley that included "America the Beautiful," "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and "Amazing Grace." This wasn't intended as irony — Haden clearly has a sentimental, hopeful streak that was evident in his comments throughout the night. 

Oh, and there's one more thing Haden can still do: play the bass. He demonstrated that in the encore when he picked up his instrument for the only time all evening on Bill Evans' lush "Blue in Green." It was a reminder of why Haden was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and Time Magazine called him "one of the most restless, gifted and intrepid players in all of jazz."

When he was done, and the audience had finished its long standing ovation, Haden announced that day's death of his longtime friend, jazz guitarist Jim Hall.  

Haden's voice had been weak all night, but here, for the first time, it clearly broke. You couldn't help but think Haden was considering his own mortality. But he wouldn't end on an elegiac note. He addressed the student-musicians one last time, saying, forcefully: "See you at class on Tuesday."

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